Benchmarking: World Series or Little League?

Last week, New York City released its second report on building energy use and the data that underlies it. I’m pleased to report that the building I live in has a source energy utilization intensity (source EUI) of 91. Aren’t you impressed? Well, probably not, unless you happen to be one of a handful of geeks who follow this stuff. Numbers like this[1] are as opaque as the results of a blood test. And as effective in getting folks to engage in air sealing or steam trap replacement as the blood test results are in getting you to cut back on ice cream.

So I’m very pleased that the city has translated these numbers into letter grades for multifamily buildings. Almost like school, a building gets an “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D,” depending on its energy use. Unlike school, the lower your raw score, the higher your grade (since using less energy corresponds to emitting less carbon). And also unlike school, there is no “F,” although perhaps there should be.  The buildings are measured against each other, and the 25% with the lowest usage get the “A”s, the 25% with the highest usage the “D”s, and so on. (My building gets an “A.”)

The letter grades combined with clear communications are essential if benchmarking is to have any real impact on real estate transactions. These measures of energy use should be a standard component of any property offering - rental or sale - as they are today in Europe, and as automobile fuel economy and appliance energy efficiency are today in the US. But to do that, we need a simple presentation like the NYC grades. Energy Star ratings, available for commercial buildings, could do this but are not available for multifamily buildings. The Benchmarking Report supports the EPA’s ongoing effort to construct a meaningful Energy Star score for multifamily buildings, but it’s not here yet. In the meantime, the letter grades provide a decent representation of how your building is doing.[2]

How do we get people to actually care? A recent and thought-provoking white paper by the Friends of Benchmarking (an independent group of which Urban Green is a proud member) and supported by the Sallan Foundation emphasized the importance of an easy-to-understand scoring system and attractive graphics. It included a nifty rendering put together at Atelier Ten, showing midtown buildings displaying their Energy Star scores. Can we pull multifamily buildings in this direction?

We could require the Benchmarking letter grade be publically posted in multifamily buildings the way Department of Health ratings are posted in restaurants. One could imagine aesthetic objections, but it would ensure all residents see the information and hopefully motivate action. (We would need to tie the letter grades to fixed values of the EUI, so that as the city improved, we would not be condemning the worst 25% of buildings to “D”s forever.)

OK, I don’t know if that’s the only or best way to proceed, but I’m afraid that the political importance of Benchmarking will fade rapidly if we can’t get more public interest. As my title indicated, we need to elevate benchmarking comparisons from academic discussion to serious competition. The release of the 2011 data and the second Benchmarking Report provide tools that are essential to moving this mission forward.

PS: The second Benchmarking Report includes all kinds of insightful analysis of the data. I encourage everyone to download, read, and digest it. Also take a look at useful blogs from our friends at NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation.

[1] The details: A “source EUI” gives the total energy used by a building, including heating fuel and the fuel energy used to generate the electricity consumed, divided by its total floor area. The result is usually presented in thousands of British Thermal Units per square foot, so the number cited for my building is 91 kBtu/sf.

[2] Scoring in NYC is relatively simple, since the housing stock all operates under the same weather, fuel and electricity prices and availability, and uses the same workforce.

About the authors

Richard Leigh
Richard Leigh is a Visiting Professor of Physics at Pratt Institute, primarily teaching courses in building science. He formerly served as Urban Green's Director of Research, where he managed research projects including the 2016 New York City Auditing and Benchmarking Report for 2013 data and 90 by 50, showing that New York City can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent below current levels by 2050.